Monday, December 28, 2015

Europe on $50 a Day or Less

I recently discovered, a very useful Website if you are planning a trip. It details prices for different budgets in various parts of the world and shows that yes, you can still visit Europe for $50 a day or less if you stay in budget hotels, about half that price if you opt for hostels. And that is for lodging, meals, drinks, some transportation and sightseeing.

The catch is that the cheapest places are all in Eastern Europe, and some are not easy to get to. For 2016 they predict that Kiev, Ukraine will be the cheapest place for backpackers, at just $22.84 per day, followed by Bucharest, Romania; Krakow, Poland; Sofia, Bulgaria; and Belgrade, Serbia. All come in below $27 a day.

If you don't like hostels and opt for modest hotels, the cost will approximately double in more or less the same cities, but will still be $50 a day or less for the top five choices of 2015, led by Bucharest at $43.80 per day. St. Petersburg, Russia just misses the cheapest five at number six, and just over $50 a day, not including the cost (and hassle) of obtaining a visa.

The costs listed are for the cheapest centrally-located hostel or hotel that receives good online reviews, so your actual cost may be higher than those listed. Still, in these days of ever-higher prices in North America it is good to know that you can still stretch your travel dollars a lot by going abroad.

The Website also lists price information for Asian and Caribbean destinations.

Sunday, December 20, 2015

New York Hotel Bargains

I was idly thinking of visiting New York City at the end of January, and did a search of hotels for the last weekend of the month. I was very surprised to find what sounded to be some pretty good deals, less than I paid more than a decade ago, the last time I visited.

For example, on the Website I found that a room at the Pennsylvania Hotel was going for as low as $65 a night, plus tax and service charges. Now taxes are high in New York, but that still sounds as if it would come out to be a bargain. Located right above Amtrak's Pennsylvania Station, this hotel is an especially good choice for rail travellers.

A number of other hotels in Manhattan came in at less than $100 per night. Obviously these are not luxury places to stay, and some online reviews were unenthusiastic. To be sure of what you will be paying in total, check the tax carefully online or book directly with the hotel.

I have heard that foreign tourism in New York is down a lot because of the strong U.S. dollar, so perhaps that is helping keep hotel prices low. In any case, it's good news. The latter part of January in New York can be cold, but the cultural season is in full swing and crowds are minimal.

Another good choice for a January vacation is Rome. I read some years ago in an article by someone who lives there that it is the only time of the year when that Italian city is not overwhelmed by tourists and pilgrims.

If you enjoy this blog, you may want to read my observations on called "Trudging Through Moscow" based on various visits to that city. Wattpad, with 16 million members around the world, is a vibrant online writing community. It's a good place to experiment with writing or new kinds of writing, and you can use a pseudonym (I don't, but most writers seem to,)

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Book a Travel Deal for Christmas

What is a better present for family or friends than a trip abroad? This month there are some amazing deals being offered at for travel to destinations in Europe, Israel and Latin America from the United States.

For example, a six day voyage to Portugal from Washington, DC goes for as little as $1,044 and includes air fare and six nights in hotels, three in Lisbon and three in Porto, plus trains between the two cities. That price is per person and based on double occupancy.

An eight day trip to Israel with hotels in Tel Aviv, Tiberias and Jerusalem plus some sightseeing and meals and air fare from New York costs just $1,199 per person. It must be booked by December 18. A three night weekend in Dublin with air fare from New York and hotel costs as little as $772 per person.

If Latin America sounds more appealing in winter, a six night trip to Panama with air fare from Ft. Lauderdale and hotels in two different cities goes for as low as $759. These deals tend to sell out quickly, so if one of them appeals it is good to book it right away. Often they are available with air fare from other cities at somewhat higher cost. Single supplement, if offered, is also an extra cost and could raise the price a lot.

Sunday, December 13, 2015

A 50 Cent Ride in the Clouds

I have long been intrigued by Bolivia, a country where, from what I have read, in many ways time seems to have stood still. The indigenous women dress in costumes from the 19th century, complete with bowler hats, and the way of life in the altiplano has changed little for centuries.

In La Paz, though, one of the country's two capitals, a futuristic cable car now offers transportation complete with Wi-Fi provided by solar panels set in the roof of the gondolas. The transit system called El Teleferico connects a part of the city known as El Alto with the lower city centre. Transit time is about one-third of the time needed for the same journey by bus or taxi. Best of all, a one-way ticket costs just 50 cents.

The gondolas offer a high-level view of the neighborhoods below, providing an instant tour of a city that sounds as if it could be difficult to explore on foot. Located 12,000 feet above sea level, La Paz is the highest capital city in the world, and many of its neighbourhoods are higher still.

For more about the Teleferico, check Incidentally, the Los Angeles Times has an excellent travel section, and you can read much of it online. Other stories of interest include one on the rail trip across Canada and another on skiing in California, where snow is plentiful this year, which is not the case so far in eastern North America.

Wednesday, December 09, 2015

Info for Happy Camping

There is no doubt about it, camping is one of the cheapest ways there is to travel. That is true particularly if you camp in a tent, but staying in a camper or recreational vehicle can also be economical when you take advantage of various deals.

For camping in the United States, a book called "Free and Low-cost Campgrounds" lists nearly 12,000 places where camp sites are available for $12 a night or less. In some cases the $12 price applies only to campers with an America the Beautiful senior pass. This pass, which costs just $10 for lifetime membership, offers half-price at nearly all the campgrounds operated by the National Parks Service, National Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management, Bureau of Reclamation, Tennessee Valley Authority and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. It is offered to visitors 62 years old or more.

Camping in the winter is an especially good bargain at long-term visitor areas operated by the Bureau of Land Management in the California desert and along the Colorado River. Visitors can stay for the whole winter from October 1 to May 31 for just $180. That's a price that is hard to beat anywhere.

To buy a senior pass, check the Website To order a copy of the guide to low-cost campgrounds check While most states are listed in the guide, Alaska and Hawaii are not included.

I haven't had much experience of camping myself, though I do remember spending a couple of days camping sans tents in the Negev Desert in Israel. It was very peaceful until an F-15 flew overhead and woke everyone up. We got up before dawn the next morning to climb Masada and see the sunrise.

Saturday, December 05, 2015

A Typical Russian Home

There is, of course, no such thing as a "typical" Russian home, any more than there is a "typical" American, British or Mexican home. Homes is Russia vary from extremely modest studio apartments to enormous mansions--the rustic vacation home near Lake Baikal pictured above is somewhere in the middle but toward the high end.

Based on a very small sample of Russian homes where I have stayed or visited, I can however make some generalizations. These homes, where I was welcomed thanks to, ranged from very simple to very comfortable. In all cases they were spotlessly clean, as is characteristic of most Russian interiors. (Exteriors may be a different story.)

A Russian home is sure to have a room or at least a designated area near the front door for removing shoes or boots and coats and donning slippers.Outside footwear is never worn indoors. This is actually a sensible arrangement, since it makes the task of cleaning floors a lot easier.

The toilet may be in a room by itself. Modern homes often have the toilet combined with a shower or bathtub and a sink, but in older homes and apartments the toilet is likely to be accorded its own tiny chamber. I'm not sure what the reasoning is for this--perhaps it dates from the time in the 20th century when many people lived in communal apartments where a toilet, bath and kitchen were shared by several families.

The kitchen is the heart of the home. In modern homes open plan kitchens are very popular, as they are in the West. But even in older places, the kitchen is likely to be the largest room in the house or apartment. And, regardless of when you return home, you are likely to be invited to partake of a large assortment of cold meat, cheese, bread and tea or vodka.

The living room, on the other hand, may be non-existent even in luxurious homes. Perhaps because of the housing shortage that existed in Soviet times, Russians tend to congregate in the kitchen for long periods of time, or to spend time in their individual rooms.

The home is very likely to be surrounded by a fairly high wall. This defensive characteristic may seem odd to Westerners, but it is typical of Russian detached homes and dachas, the usually small summer cottages many city-dwellers own. In one home where I stayed that was already in a gated community there was also a guard house with a full-time security guard at the home itself. Russians love gated communities. I suspect this defensiveness stems from Russia's long history of invasion and occupation--by Mongols, by Napoleon's troops, by the Germans in World War II.

If the home is occupied by people under 40, it will probably be furnished totally in modern style with the latest electronic devices. However, if the home owner is older, furnishings may be in the more ornate style common in Soviet times, when rooms boasted large highly polished wooden wall units that housed many books, usually Russian and Western classics.

Wednesday, December 02, 2015

Armchair Travel to China

If you have ever dreamed of travelling around China off the beaten path, you must read the book "Fried Eggs with Chopsticks" by Polly Evans. This book was published ten years ago so things may have changed quite a bit since then, but it is still one of the most fascinating travel books I have ever read.

Evans vows to visit the "real" China beyond the large, developed cities mainly by public transport, and explores many distant and often unsavoury areas of the country. She is a marvellous writer and doesn't pull any punches. She refers to China "still festering outside" and describes many unpleasant aspects of her travels. For example, "The view from the window of the bus...would have been much improved had the girl in the seat in front not vomited quite so violently."

But she also mentions the kindness of many people she encounters, and the beauty of many little explored parts of the country. Her knowledge of Chinese history is extensive, perhaps because she spent several years living and working in Hong Kong. However, her knowledge of the language was not great, and I am full of admiration for her bravery in undertaking such a trip despite this handicap.

She writes in the book about a chance encounter along the way with better-known British travel writer Michael Palin. I admire his work too, but I believe this book puts her in the same category as Palin, Paul Theroux, Freya Stark and other greats of the genre.

I'm looking forward to reading more of her books. Her Website is, and there is an interview with her on The latter is a very interesting British-based site devoted to travel writing by women.